Like processors, electronic component upgrades follow this model: faster, smaller, and cheaper. When DDR4 started shipping in 2014, some in the DRAM market expected the DDR3 chips to be replaced quickly. Yet momentum has been slow, and now DDR5 plans are underway. Did DDR4 miss the boat? “Not at all,” says Jim Handy, industry analyst at Objective Analysis. “DDR4 is shipping in volume, and [the chips] are being used across all servers and many PCs today.”
DDR4 chips represent evolution, not revolution, continues Handy. Most analysts agree that the new model uses about 35 percent less power than the DDR3 chips being replaced. Expectations are that they will eventually be about 100 percent faster, and being smaller, modules now support 8GB of DRAM rather than 4GB.
Yet uptake has been slower than expected, says Avril Wu, research director at analyst firm DRAMeXchange. “DDR4 chips were expected to be the mainstream solution faster than they are right now,” she says. “Intel chipsets are having a rather slow transition from DDR3 to DDR4.” Server chips have made the jump, but PC processors are still a little behind.
“The transition to DDR4 is under the control of Intel, with [its] schedule of rolling out processors that support the new memory standard,” says Handy. “This generally works out well enough, but Intel sometimes pushes prices down too fast for the DRAM manufacturers.”
From Servers to PCs
Intel announced last summer that DDR4 shipments were “ramping up quickly.” Most server motherboards available today support DDR4 and servers that have shipped include the newer memory chips. DDR4 will soon be common in PC shipments, says Wu. “Suppliers are pushing DDR4. When they migrate to 20 nm production lines, DDR4 is the priority product to make,” she says. This change may account for the price parity between DDR3 and DDR4 memory that Handy mentions. As suppliers gear more production capacity for DDR4, prices drop.
Don’t forget that certification for new memory takes time, adds Handy. “In the most extreme example, high-reliability systems take a year for certification, then another year qualifying the full system.”
Another factor that slows rollout of DDR4 chips in PCs? The lower-power and higher-capacity memory chips are being adopted by smartphone makers such as Samsung, for its Galaxy 7, and Google, for the Pixel. As production continues to ramp up, gaps remain in supply, another reason vendors are still shipping some PCs with DDR3 memory.
What about DDR5?
People in technology fields are impatient and look forward, which is why a few voices are calling to skip DDR4 and just move straight to DDR5, the next version. But Wu says DDR5 still has a long way to go. “It’s not going to be the mainstream solution until 2020.”
“The DDR5 bandwagon’s not really rolling yet,” agrees Handy. “The committee was supposed to get the specification done in 2016 but didn’t. It’s hard to get everyone to agree on something as difficult as a DRAM specification. It’s tough to get all the memory manufacturers, OEMs, and processor vendors to decide. And then you add in the hyperscale companies like Intel, AMD, NVIDIA, and others trying to make their own processors, and you wind up with meetings going on for two or three years. Higher speed also causes more design problems.”
Once the specifications are finished it will take several years for production to catch up, continues Handy. “Memory chip specs typically have their day in the sun for only two or three years, but hang around for about a decade.” Because of the delay in a DDR5 agreement between vendors, DDR4 could remain the dominant memory in the market for longer than usual.
The bottom line for resellers and system builders? “Just buy DDR4 for everything going forward,” says Handy. “Don’t try to fit DDR3 into new products. DDR4 has already reached price parity with DDR3, so you’re getting more capacity and more performance with lower prices with DDR4.”